Tell it slant: A look at the poet-rebels Whitman and Dickinson

In the mid-1800s, some American poets seemed to make a departure from the traditional forms and restraints of classical European poetry. In the true American spirit, these innovators decided to “go it on their own.”


Three poems written around this time exemplify that spirit; “Beat! Beat! Drums” by Walt Whitman, “I heard a Fly—buzz…” and “Tell all the truth but it slant” by Emily Dickinson. From these poems, the reader can derive a true, organic, and often aural sense of what the poet was experiencing, as well as some insight into the emotions underlying the sounds and meaning of the words. (See also alliteration, onomonapoeia).


In “Beat! Beat! …” Whitman uses onomatopoeia to write out the expression of what banging on drums sounds and feels like. There is a rhythm to the beginning of the first line and also to the third stanza: “Beat! Beat!” starts, and then continues with “Blow, bugles, blow!” The long o in blow can be held out, almost like the sound of a drawn-out horn being blown. As in the structure of a song, Whitman uses repetition to support the rhythm he is establishing. “Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?” he asks. “Would the lawyer rise in court to attempt to face the judge?”


The timing is measured roundabout line per line, and that sustains the rhythm. Though some sense of  meter, and some slant rhyme may be detected, the lines of “Beat! Beat!” do not follow any of the Old World conventions of rhyme scheme or measured meter (see Shakespearean sonnets, Chaucer).


In the same respect, Emily Dickinson broke the rules of traditional poetic form with many of her poems. Dickinson often used very short lines which ended abruptly or abstractly. She was not married to the idea of rhyme scheme, although, she would once in a while employ rhyme, seemingly when it was convenient for her.


In this way,  the words and lines of her poem “Tell it slant…” seem to poke fun at poetic convention; subtle irony is built into (and in-between) the words.


“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Dickinson writes, “Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth’s superb surprise.”


I love the mention of “circuit” here. Within these short lines are implied all of the failures of human communication—the shortcomings of the Sender/Receiver exchange. Circuit lies… circuit lies… circuit lies… We are told to trust a perfect circle, but in the sender/receiver relationship, there is the implicit shortfall of the possibility of falsehood (which may—and DOES—often lead to the dissemination/propulsion/recirculation… of [a] falsehood[s]).


In principle, a poem is a condensed version of a story. A poem may be meant to capture the essence of an idea, an experience, a person, an emotion, etc. In this brevity, much may be left out or misinterpreted. Add to this the poetic challenge of forcing every line to rhyme and you could have a formula for disaster (re: bad poetry).


Dickinson may have been all-too familiar with this, and the joke becomes guessing at how your poem might turn out when you have to adhere to the rules; force your lines to rhyme. “The Truth’s superb surprise” to me means the shock that after you’ve written a piece and presented it to the reader, that the reader might have a different interpretation than your intended meaning (Hence, a different Truth).


Dickinson seems to say that in writing poetry, the poet is forced to make a compromise. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” she wrote. I think what she is saying is that within the confines of this short poem, and the brevity of its words, there isn’t room enough for the whole truth. So tell as much as you can make fit!


On the other hand, the Truth can be too much for the reader. The naked Truth may be blinding. “Too bright for our infirm Delight,” she says. Sometimes the bold, unbridled Truth hurts. So dampen the blow, she suggests you poets. “Tell all the truth [with a lowercase ‘t’] but tell it slant.” Soften the blow.


In comparison to a smooth-flowing, classical Shakespearean sonnet, such as “My mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun…” (Sonnet 130), “I heard a Fly – buzz..” is a lot choppier.


It is full of jagged hyphens, and nearly every line ends with a long dash. In reading it aloud, it seems as though there would be many starts and stops. It seems to be written from the perspective of a mind who keeps getting interrupted. “I heard a Fly buzz —when I died/The Stillness in the Room/Was like the stillness in the Air— /Between the heaves of a storm—” Dickinson writes.


The frequent interruptions of her words by long dashes are jarring. It almost seems like the speaker is someone who is trying to get the words out, yet convulsing. Some scholars have a practical explanation for this: that Emily Dickinson had epilepsy (“Biography Speculates Emily Dickinson Had Epilepsy”, 2010). The lines of this poem do seem like they might be delivered by someone suffering from a seizure; someone who can’t control his/her body and/or mind from jaggedly shifting on—and off—and on—and off again.


In poems like “Beat! Beat! Drums,” “Tell all the truth…” and “I heard a Fly buzz…” turn-of-the-century  American poets (19th to 20th centuries) not only departed from the restrictions of classic European poetic forms, but also display a change in poetic attitudes. Leaving the strictly Romantic behind, these poets embraced abstract ideas and emotion. This was met with skepticism from fans of poetry because it departed from illustrations of more concrete concepts in poetry.  


Both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson took full ownership of their poems. They are unapologetic in their play with the lengths of their lines and their experiments with slant rhyme and variations on meter. Following in the tradition of the American pioneering spirit, these writers set the course for new explorations in poetry. The result would be wild variations and all kinds of experimentation through the postmodern writing and into the new poetry of today.


My Plan for a More Sustainable Phoenix, part IV – Energy and Final Thoughts

If Phoenix wants to get serious and curb sprawl and truly address our low density-related sustainability issues, the city and state are going to have to take much more dramatic measures. Encouraging infill and adaptive reuse is a good thing, but in our city, it doesn’t go far enough. It’s one thing to dump a bunch of money in the lap of a developer to say, “Good job for reusing that downtown empty space!” But then when that developer turns around and builds an over-priced, high-consumption eyesore that no one can afford to live in or lease for business, the project might just as well go bankrupt and pretty often (as we’ve seen in Downtown Phoenix and in Tempe) it never gets completed. Or, if the place opens, but doesn’t fill to full occupancy, and the developers refuse to lower rents this artificially drives up the cost of housing in the area, even though the demand just isn’t there.

This practice also drives out a lot of the lower-income level, original inhabitants of the area. (It seems to me that poorer Phoenix-folk have historically had a much harder time crying “Imminent Domain! Unfair land use!” than poor folks in other regions of the United States… but let’s just call that a hunch [highway/freeway projects, and certain Downtown Phoenix campus project…] ) Some people call this process gentrification and say it’s a good thing. But others lament the loss of neato historic homes and businesses, deep rooted old trees and a town’s sense of history and identity once that too often around Phoenix and too easily gets erased (for a current example of this practice of Quick-erasing Phoenix memories, see the Frank Lloyd Wright house story:

New York Times – Frank Lloyd Wright house gets some time

In order to encourage a more diverse, fair housing environment downtown, Phoenix needs to address its housing and building practices and make some significant changes in the direction of keeping folks in their neighborhoods and improving in-city and downtown neighborhoods to stay attractive, satisfying places to live.

Adaptive re-use in Phoenix should include adding more “green space” within the city limits. This has a number of benefits not only in fighting air pollution (green spaces help clean the air and produce oxygen) but also increasing the aesthetic appeal and even the property values within urban areas. Lately there have been a lot more independent groups, such the Downtown Phoenix Arts Coalition (D-PAC), Local First, Downtown Voices Coalition, and Roosevelt Row launching programs and projects to help encourage greening, infill and Smart Growth downtown—and this is a very good thing! For example, Roosevelt Row and A.R.T.S. helped support the Valley of the Sunflowers project, where local small business The Growhouse “borrowed” a vacant lot in downtown Phoenix and filled it with sunflowers. The students of Phoenix Bioscience High School will harvest the sunflowers and make biodiesel for a biodiesel vehicle they are building. = A.R.T.S. deserves mad props for using empty downtown lots for community-building events such as the Food Truck Festival and Pie Social. I would like to see these events continue to get support from the public and downtown planners, and hopefully we’ll see this kind of thing sustain and even grow.

     Phoenix relies on energy from a number of producers, including fossil fuel burning, nuclear power plant power, and even some hydroelectric power from nearby dams. One of our most obvious resources that seem to go very much overlooked in Phoenix is energy produced from the sun.

From 1990-2007 Arizona added fossil-fuel pollutants faster than any other state—the rate of increase was more than three times the national average. The region is deluged with more than 330 days of bright sunlight, yet only a tiny percentage of its energy is drawn from solar sources. (Ross p. 5).

It seems inconceivable that Arizona would not push development and implementation of solar power plants and private solar panel use more aggressively. Not only could energy become virtually free for its residents, the county and state could even “harvest” solar energy and “sell it back to the grid,” or store it and transfer it to other communities less likely to be able to generate as much solar power. This is a clean, renewable resource and it just seems ignorant that the state hasn’t pushed further into research and development programs.

Luckily for local residents, there are more companies such as First Solar that are starting up in the Phoenix area with the idea of creating solar farms where vast numbers of solar panels with photovoltaic plates will cover open land and soak up and convert sun power into electricity. But again, I do not think that we should stop there. Phoenix should consider implementing a plan similar to the one proposed by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg earlier this year, where he pushed building solar power plants over existing landfill sites (smart, adaptive land use), exploring the use of waste-to-energy facilities where garbage is actually used to make energy, often by burning it, and also adopting 130 other “green” initiatives to help improve quality of life in New York (Colvin 2011).

In his book Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, author, researcher and social critic Andrew Ross explains that while Phoenix might not literally be the least sustainable city on the planet, there are many lessons to be learned from our bad habits as far as abusing water resources, allowing bad planning and zoning which led to massive urban sprawl, consuming natural resources while we virtually ignore solar power, adding to the greenhouse gas mess and unfairly treating minority and low-income populations in sustainable living measures. Ross uses Phoenix as an example, probably because Phoenix’s mistakes have been so highly visible. But that doesn’t mean this city hasn’t done anything right. Introducing light rail and making commitments to expand public transportation and to switch to more solar-generated energy are just the beginning. The City of Phoenix has made a commitment to make sure all of its buildings are meet the minimums for LEED certification, and the city can already brag about the efficiency of buildings like the Burton Barr, Cesar Chavez and Desert Broom libraries, the Phoenix Convention Center West Building and the ASU Downtown Campus’s Cronkite School building. The city is also promoting reuse of building materials, and encouraging developers and planners to always incorporate some kind of shade providing structure when building new establishments. Also, taking the lead for other cities, and successful “green” buildings like the City of Chandler’s new City Hall, the City of Phoenix is also looking into using greywater technologies, and finding ways to add solar panels to its building for solar power energy collection, conversion, storage and use (City of Phoenix website). By encouraging infill and adaptive re-use of existing structures, such as building lofts and commercial spaces in preexisting downtown buildings, the city is also helping itself to lessen its ecological footprint, and to become a more sustainable Phoenix.

If we can make some minor adjustments and avoid depleting our water sources, cut back on greenhouse gas production, and curb our voracious appetite for gasoline, we can keep our Valley of the Sun beautiful, and we won’t have to end up like the Hohokam.

My Plan for a More Sustainable Phoenix, (the start of) Part III – Transportation

Other health related issues associated with high levels of miles driven per year include increased likelihood of crashes, potential hard to pedestrians and bicyclists, and decreased physical activity (which can lead to all sorts of health issues such as obesity and loss of muscle function) (p. 203-208). People who live in higher-density, more “walkable” cities are found to have far fewer incidences of these problems.

The biggest demon encouraging automobile addiction in large American cities such as Phoenix, of course, is urban sprawl, coupled with lack of or inadequate planning of public transportation through a city’s arterial roadways, and into outlying areas. Sprawl occurs when a city’s population expands to the very edges of the city’s borders—and then goes even further. The trend started after the Industrial Revolution, when families were earning more money, and desired bigger houses and better quality of life from the congested cities, which often faced health and sanitation issues. The migration to lower-density areas caused many urban areas to expand outward by the square mile. This has resulted in the need to build more roads and freeways, and to deliver more servers, such as electricity and sewers, further and further to outlying suburban areas. It is estimated that one of two Americans now resides in a suburb (Frumkin, p. 201).

To accommodate all of these suburbanites, U.S. cities have had to do major roadway expansion and freeway building starting in the 1950s and continuing today. These projects are often readily funded by federal and state agencies. However, mass transit, for some reason, doesn’t always receive the same amounts of grants and funding. This is true in Arizona; the state does not provide any funding for transportation programs (Ross p. 11). Basically, in order to take on a major mass transit project like bringing Light Rail to Phoenix, planners and public officials would have to propose and then get voted in an increase in property taxes, which is generally not favorable with the public. This is a great burden for transit planning locally. However, there always seems to be federal money around to build a freeway, and many pro-automobile parties will contend that freeway building, constant needed improvements and maintenance, and road expansion add jobs to the local economy.

For these reasons and others, there is and always has been a local attitude that promoting mass transit equates “social engineering;” it smacks of Marxism/Communism. Thus, there has been a general reluctance to improve or expand mass transit systems in Phoenix, up until about the last 15 years when planners starting trying new tactics to sell the idea to the public.

Light rail was proposed more than a decade ago, with the promise that commuters might beat traffic getting to downtown Phoenix and the heart of Tempe, and the lines might also be used to ease congestion to stadium events on game days. But many business owners and developers who criticized the light rail’s routes, rail lines, and stops for “blocking” entrances to businesses and restricting access to parking lots, side alleys, and other channels fought the plan. Eventually, a light rail plan was adopted and implemented, but it was greatly scaled down from the originally proposed plan, and so far it is projected to take more than 20 years to complete (,

Part of the solution to mitigating and controlling air pollution in the Valley will be to curb sprawl by encouraging adaptive re-use of existing buildings within incorporated Phoenix, encouraging infill (building homes and condos on bare lots within the city), and setting stricter zoning standards to block further development on the edges of cities. Phoenix has in place a number of incentives programs to try to promote re-use of buildings, and to encourage infill.

Phoenix is working on a number of improvements to make the downtown area more “walkable,” and therefore safer and more attractive to inhabitants. A walkable city is one where a person living within a central metropolitan area can easily and quickly walk or bike to grocery stores, restaurants, entertainment, and other necessities in a matter of 30 minutes or less. It also helps promote urban living and makes an area more walkable if there are fewer areas of urban blight, or empty lots, that have no aesthetic or practical value to the walker.

One example of a minor success in improving usability/walkability is the design of the Arizona State University Downtown Campus and its connected housing for students. ASU’s Downtown Campus received the 2009 Smart Growth Award: Urban Land Institute because it is so walkable, and close to several Light Rail stops.  The city is also working on City Edge limits to protect the Sonoran Preserve, an area of raw desert housing many native plants and animals (City of Phoenix website).

Development often leads to the stripping of the land, and that can have many ill effects, not only removing “green spaces” from cities and lessening the ground’s natural ability to soak and retain water, but also, more concrete and asphalt contributes to the urban heat island effect. The City of Phoenix has committed to creating a Heat Island Task Force (launched in 2005) and to promote more awareness and creation of shady spaces to fight the heat island effect. “In 2005, the city council established an inter-departmental Urban Heat Island Task Force led by the Planning Department to research the issue and recommend new policies and programs. In addition, several city departments are working in collaboration with Arizona State University’s (ASU) Global Institute of Sustainability to study the impacts of the Urban Heat Island and possible mitigation options.” Phoenix is also promoting urban forestry and “greening” projects to promote shade and keep more water in the ground.

But promoting infill and trying to encourage people to reside in the central city are not the only ways that Phoenix is dealing with sustainability issues, and especially air quality. In the City of Phoenix’s Green Government Program statements (May 2011), the city has vowed to fight dust and air pollution problems in the following ways: dedicating about $3 million to paving “low volume dirt roads and shoulders to reduce dust”; applying dust palliative to at least 65 miles of roadway shoulders per year (when “economically feasible”); stabilizing exposes soil areas created during construction projects; to lessen local fuel consumption by 10 percent, based on 2007-2008 averages; continue to spray water along dirt roads and shoulder surfaces to try to prevent dust from flying around, and several other dust and particulate control tactics, when the funds are available (Source: GGP PowerPoint, published May 2011).